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With three years behind him as president of Antioch College, Thomas Hill (1818-1891) was the first Harvard president to bring experience as an academic chief executive to the job. For Hill’s formal installation on March 4, 1863, University Organist and Choirmaster John Knowles Paine composed a new anthem, Domine salvum fac Praesidem nostrum (God Save Our President).
Hill raised admissions standards and took steps toward an elective course system. In 1863, Harvard established public University Lectures by major scholars from Harvard and elsewhere that helped open the way for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the University Extension program. When faculty positions opened up, Hill scoured the nation for candidates.
Milestones of the period included the first alumni election of Harvard Overseers (Commencement 1866), the beginnings of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (the nation’s first anthropology museum; 1866), and the founding of the Dental School (the nation’s first university dental school; 1867). On July 19, 1865, the governor of Massachusetts presided over the Board of Overseers for the last time, in keeping with a recent legislative act that severed Harvard’s ties to state government.
One student at this time was Robert Todd Lincoln, Class of 1864, son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Hoping for parental reinforcement, Hill wrote to the White House on Dec. 9, 1862, to inform the president that the faculty had just approved public admonishment of his son for smoking in Harvard Square after he had privately been warned not to do so.
While Hill never fully realized his vision of Harvard as “an American University in the highest and best sense,” historian Samuel Eliot Morison credits him with moving things in the right direction. Personal factors prevented him from pushing them farther.
To Morison, Hill seemed “too modest, easily balked by difficulty or opposition. With the air and appearance of a kindly, eccentric country minister, he failed lamentably to match the traditional picture of a Harvard president, and shocked Cambridge folk by such lapses from clerical dignity as stripping off his coat to plant ivy against Gore Hall [the library building, 1841-1913]. [. . .]”
On Sept. 30, 1868, Hill resigned, weighed down by “personal bereavements” (Morison). In 1873, he became minister of a church in Portland, Maine, where he happily spent his final years. “Late in life,” notes Morison, “President Eliot declared that he had always been thankful for Hill as a predecessor, since it was he who set the University on the path that she was destined to follow.”
President of Harvard University 1862-1868